Art

The Art Gallery of NSW's historical photography exhibition teems with history but meaning gets lost in the detail. By Patrick Hartigan.

The Photograph and Australia, at AGNSW

David Moore’s
 Migrants arriving in Sydney, 1966
Credit: Courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales

While hinting at the inescapable fact of subjectivity, William Blake noted that “as the eye, such the object.” The relationship between observation, objects and the accumulation of knowledge and history concerns both the evolution of photography and the thesis of The Photograph and Australia, on show at the Art Gallery of NSW until June 8.

It’s quite hard to maintain focus in a large exhibition of photographs, particularly in one where so much of the material requires close inspection. This presumably has something to do with the omnipresence of photographic imagery in our lives, the info-binge as it were, but is also symptomatic of that medium’s obdurately scientific ways, the rigid form of scrutiny this encourages when hung in a museum.

A photograph, its careful selecting and framing, deceives with its apparent objectivity. An exhibition such as this does the same: purporting to provide a definitive, objective view of history, it in fact gives us only one carefully oriented viewfinder through which to see things.

If photography provided the ultimate tool for Enlightenment classification, then all-encompassing exhibitions likewise gather and order by means of classifying. The latter is a very tricky affair given the task of condensing so much material, at the same time running the risk of skewing according to the taste, ambitions and priorities of its temporary caregiver, the curator. How does the person who has embarked on this challenge survey the land and erect the boundaries? What are the criteria for being on one side of the fence or the other? The answer to this question will be different with each reading, each generation, each show, each tome, and yet what we can be sure of, here being a case in point, is that there are always specific criteria – personal taste among them – prescribing selection.

The Photograph and Australia is an at times confronting and violent exhibition, orbiting that mucky pile of laundry, namely the collision of Western and Indigenous culture on which modern Australian society is based. As Roland Barthes pointed out, the photograph is, by its very nature, violent: “not because it shows violent things but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed.”

The forceful, selective clarity found in those early gelatin and albumen prints offers a potency that later, more artful examples struggle to match. I spent a big portion of my time and focus in a room containing the work of J. W. Lindt. His dioramas in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous men and women repose obediently and forlornly while holding the tools of their trade – boomerang, rifle, spear, tea mug – impress and repel with their ethnological earnestness. The power of these works is in their utter strangeness: intelligent and horrific, timely and timeless. You have to keep reminding yourself that these were serious ethnological documents, not some clever commentary on Western anthropological and ethnological pursuit.

In the same room and the one immediately beside it I felt throttled at times by the data of more straightforward recordings: while being used as a tool for sorting the world, these early photographs – with distance – provide only mirrors. It’s not always easy to submit to the detail of these images, but once hooked in the experience it can be oddly captivating. A mere shovel becomes interesting in this equation of time, light and chemicals.

In some of the photographs we see people: exhausted, snatched and exploited for the purposes of furnishing Arcadian views and taxonomies. In others we find their tools: John Hunter Kerr and George Priston’s Aboriginal spears, boomerangs and implements (1865-75) shows a grid of spears and boomerangs belonging to a culture with no word for ownership standing carefully propped up against the gapless fence palings of one obsessed with possession and progress. What these photographs show, piecemeal, is the rolling out of civilisation, the grid of progress blanketing a territory and people figured to be in need of it.

Later in the show, the ominous obscuring mechanism of cameras finds neat equivalence in a series of eclipses photographed by James Short in the early 20th century, while Joseph Turner’s ambrotypes, reducing the starry heavens to tiny chemical blemishes, provide a wonder more abstract and wholesome. And yet while continuing to impress on the level of individual images, the overall experience of the show, by the time I reached its final room, was one of being loaded with detail while lost in terms of lineage and conceptual bearings.

Kay Rosen’s wall text piece YOURS OURS (2014), which I came across upstairs before seeing this show, speaks directly to the prudent brutality of those rooms of early photography: the afterimage of those giant letters, their meditation on cultural ownership, quietly reverberated in my brain while being drawn into the world of prim and proper race eclipsing. It also raised the question of what museums do.

Change is afoot at the Art Gallery of NSW and I believe this is a good thing. After leaving The Photograph and Australia I went downstairs where I was greeted with the sight of some new acquisitions, an enormous Grayson Perry tapestry and Colin McCahon painting among them. The strokes of the latter had a way of putting oxygen in my lungs, particularly after the strictures of so much photography, and I was led to wondering how an artist so worshipped among art lovers can take more than half a century to be acquired by the likes of this institution.

The example of McCahon’s prior exclusion illustrates the important role of caregivers and directors, in whom we trust to put matters of personal taste and politics aside in order to maximise the public benefit given to us by public art collections. What was bought in lieu of McCahon and what might have been acquired instead of that exceedingly mediocre $16 million Cezanne placemat upstairs? What exactly governed those very costly decisions? Looping back through the gallery’s forecourt and seeing that Rosen work a second time brought a less murky sense of vindication to this thought process: the gallery isn’t YOURS, it’s bloody well OURS!

Photography is part of the arsenal of acquisition. Like museums, in which these papery relics usually lie snug in solander boxes, it hoards and takes ownership of history. One of the aims of The Photograph and Australia is to readdress the balance of ownership dating back to Australia’s colonisation by the British. The colonial project’s inseparability from Australian photographic history comes full circle in the form of contemporary Indigenous artists lamenting, critiquing and thereby regaining some ownership of this history.

Tracey Moffatt’s Beauties series (1994) – a black cowboy offered in tones of cream, mulberry and wine – looms thoughtfully above display cases of hand-coloured daguerreotypes, 20 centimetres of wall cavity from those beauties depicted by Lindt. The centralising and dramatising of the dialogue between historical and contemporary depictions of Indigenous and white relations, along with traditional male-female power imbalances countered throughout, makes Judy Annear’s message clear, but maybe a bit too clear.

The only problem with an exhibition about the ownership of history by white males is the locked zoom effect and the way the viewfinder’s orientation overdetermines – bringing Blake’s words back to mind – the cause and course of the show. It’s a reminder that regardless of titles, these events are specialised rather than exhaustive; emphasis on one thing naturally understates another and in this show the dwarfing of canon is plain to see.

Besides notable omissions and while acknowledging that this is a show more about photography than Australia, I nevertheless speculate that there might be more than Chinese goldminers and David Moore’s classic image of Migrants arriving in Sydney (1966) available in the archive to hint at the multicultural complexities of Australian society. This is a sociological lopsidedness created, in part, by an unfortunate aversion to reportage. The power of simply bearing witness can be found in the case of Mervyn Bishop’s striking Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory (1975) but few others.

The way the show clenches its priorities, thereby diminishing or shutting out chunks of history, raises the question of whether a simple chronology – political, social and aesthetic history told through the evolution of photographic form – might benefit this medium. Any fresh, rigorously researched contribution – this now among them – is important. And yet, like power, the personal quirks of a thesis will always raise eyebrows.

Photography’s trajectory from the object of delicate, unpalatable wonder to what we have today – the conspicuous binge of instantaneous imagery – seems like one of the best reasons for tackling a show such as this. In the case of The Photograph and Australia we are fed many riches while at times left confused by the curatorship and more or less rudderless in terms of what any of this history might mean.

 

Arts diary

BALLET  The Dream
Sydney Opera House, until May 16

OPERA  Fly Away Peter
Carriageworks, Sydney, until May 9

• CIRCUS  La Soirée
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, May 7-24

Last chance

MUSIC  Beethoven: The 1808 Vienna Concert
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, May 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Photo synthesis". Subscribe here.

Patrick Hartigan
is a Sydney-based artist.